Lands Never Trodden: The Franciscans and the California Missions [Review]

lands never trodden missions

Lands Never Trodden: The Franciscans and the California Missions

John J. O’Hagan

Caldwell, ID: Caxton Press, 2013

ISBN: 978-087004-563-9, paperback

309 pages, $18.95

The Spanish missions in California constitute such a major part of American history that it’s a wonder so few Americans know about them. John J. O’Hagan addresses this in his introduction to Lands Never Trodden, and proceeds to do his part to remedy this by sharing a readable history of that period. The Revolutionary War likely commands the focus of most students’ learning of this period, but O’Hagan shows that even before the Declaration of Independence, industrious Franciscan missionaries from Spain were establishing missions, creating the foundation for what we now know as California.

O’Hagan does well to draw on primary sources to paint a picture of Mission-era California; excerpts from some of these documents enrich the narrative. Of course, any modern historian looking to tell the whole story of the missions is confined by the fact that surviving documents, almost without exception, came from Spanish sources, rather than those of natives. Lands Never Trodden does include some writing from Pablo Tac, a Luiseño Indian who traveled to Rome, but as O’Hagan laments, he wrote little of himself.

The status and treatment of Indians in the mission system has been the source of considerable historical controversy. Though he perhaps gives the Spanish too much benefit of the doubt, O’Hagan recognizes and addresses this controversy. While he insists on judging the missionaries by the standards of their day, he also does not hesitate to condemn some of the clear atrocities in the historical record. While he acknowledges that European diseases and poor living conditions were responsible for the deaths of many thousands of Indians in the missions, he fairly argues that the intentions of the missionaries make “genocide” too strong a word for what Wikipedia calls a “clash of cultures.” The book’s title, Lands Never Trodden, is surely misleading in that it describes lands that many Indians tread, though in O’Hagan’s defense, the phrase is borrowed from a missionary’s writings.

After three introductory chapters, a chapter is dedicated to each of the 21 missions, in the order each was founded. Each of the chapters ends with information on the state of the mission site today (all have been preserved as historical sites or parks, though in some cases, the buildings themselves are replicas). Taken on their own, these sections would make a handy travel guide for anyone interested in taking a trip through California in the footsteps of the colorful historical figures profiled in the book.

Lands Never Trodden contains a wealth of information on the missions and the men and women who drove them, but it also contains some errors that should have been caught in copy editing; these are occasionally distracting. The book also lacks an index, making tracking down specific subjects more troublesome than it should be. Nevertheless, it is an informative book that belongs in any good collection of Californian or American Catholic history.

Alex Kyrios is a Metadata and Catalog Librarian at the University of Idaho.

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